TRENTON – At least a few hundred law enforcement officers in New Jersey would gain access to better pensions under legislation advancing in the state Legislature.

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Most officers and firefighters are enrolled in the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. But some aren’t, usually because they started their job after age 35, and they may hold job titles that also keep them out of the law enforcement officer category in the Public Employees’ Retirement System.

Members of the LEO special group are eligible for enhanced retirement benefits not available to regular PERS members.

“This bill is really dealing with fairness and respect to those officers and firefighters who should otherwise qualify for Police and Fire, except for the age at which they were hired,” said Rob Nixon, director of government affairs for the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.

The bill, A3828, applies to county corrections officers, county police department officers, county sheriff’s officers, Burlington County Bridge Commission officers, Cherry Hill campus police officers, state Division of Criminal Justice detectives and investigators and any full-time firefighters, dispatchers and EMTs.

The change would appear to not apply to many public workers – perhaps fewer than 70 in the Fraternal Order of Police and fewer than 75 in the Professional Firefighters of New Jersey. The PBA didn’t offer an estimate of the number who would be affected at a Wednesday hearing.

“In a perfect world, they would be able to be into PFRS. This gets us one kind of step closer,” said Anthony Tarantino, first vice president for the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey.

Perhaps more importantly, Tarantino said, it would also make the workers eligible for other enhanced benefits such as for disabilities deriving from rescue, recovery and cleanup at the World Trade Center after the 2001 terrorist attack.

“If, God forbid, they got cancer or some issue came up with them related to 9/11, they would not be included in some of the recent, groundbreaking, historic protections for firefighters and police,” said Tarantino.

Many of the retirement benefits for members of the LEO group are identical to those of other PERS members, but the pension can be 10% higher, retirement age starts five years earlier at age 55 and workers become eligible for ordinary disability benefits after five years on the job, rather than 10.

Assemblyman Ned Thomson, R-Monmouth, who is an actuary, supported the bill in the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, which passed it unanimously, but he said it would be better to move all law enforcement officers into PFRS now.

“I don’t understand, quite frankly, why anyone that’s in the first responder category, police and fire, whatever age, aren’t covered by Police and Fire. It just makes no sense to me at all,” Thomson said.

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Nixon said the roadblock has been the age requirement. People who start a career in their 40s might reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 before putting in enough time to qualify.

The bill was amended to prohibit counties and state agencies from appointing anyone over age 35 to a position eligible for enrollment in PFRS.

“A municipality is held to an age restriction, whereas the counties and the states aren’t,” Nixon said. “This amendment finally closes the door on that, we hope, and ensure that everybody gets into Police and Fire where they belong.”

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